With just about every sexual taboo firmly booted into the wings, you may well ask what today's seen-it-and-maybe-even-done-it-all audiences might have to learn about love and lust from a woman whose idea of sexual deviance is as laughably ordinary as falling for her stepson. Yet when it comes to exploring the mechanics of infatuation in the theater, there are few stories that have captured the imagination of playwrights and directors more than Phaedra's.
The myth of Phaedra -- the wife of Theseus, king of Athens -- whose unrequited love for Theseus' son by a previous marriage, Hippolytus, leads to all-round misery and death, has fueled the imaginations of playwrights for thousands of years. The Greek tragedian Euripides' surviving version of the myth, Hippolytus Bearer of the Garland (first produced in 428 B.C.), spawned riffs by Seneca the Younger and Racine. The French dramatist's Phèdre (1677) is considered one of the great neoclassical tragedies. Contemporary versions of the story include Per Olov Enquist's Till Fedra (1980), Sarah Kane's Phaedra's Love (1996), and Elizabeth Egloff's Phaedra (1995), to name just a few.
The reason Phaedra continues to be a source of such fascination to writers can be stated in one word: passion. It's not so much the taboo Theseus' wife breaks that shapes the many plays fashioned out of her tragic tale, but the character's desperate, self-destructive pursuit of an unachievable goal. Racine's play, for example, bubbles with ardor; the sexual tension can barely be contained within the elegant prison of the script's stately alexandrine couplets. Kane's Seneca-based work, meanwhile, takes a different approach, conveying the basest instincts through dirty, hard-hitting prose -- "a blast of sardonic nihilism" were the words British playwright Mark Ravenhill (Shopping & Fucking) once used to describe the drama.
There's not much passion -- at least of the sexual variety -- in a corporate takeover. So it's unfortunate that Matthew Maguire chooses to plunk his Phaedra down in the aftermath of an acrimonious merger. This modernized version of Racine's drama, first produced in New York in 1995 and currently in revival at Last Planet Theatre, centers not on the misplaced affections of Phaedra for Hippolytus, but of Faye for William. Faye is married to a high-powered CEO, Thomas, whose son, the object of Faye's desire, is in love with Aricia, the "daughter of the chairman of a multinational corporation ruined by Thomas in a hostile takeover," as the cast list explains.
You'd be forgiven for thinking this sounds a bit like the plot of an episode of Dallas. Half the play does read like a soap opera; the other half like the ersatz "poetry" one creates out of little magnetized words on fridge doors. For instance, the same character charged with delivering an extended and obtuse speech that begins, "The hooks and eyes, unraveling, eyes still hungry for hooks, hooks still yearning to jump through eyes. Like the hoops of a flea circus. The fleas leap from their bags, through the eyes," is later heard to utter, "Stop it, you wanker."
Maguire's text sweats and grunts with seedy descriptions of intercourse, scenes in which characters dry-hump chairs, and slatherings of pseudo-orgasmic poetry. Yet for a play about sex, this Phaedra is curiously sexless. The corporate theme feels artificial, almost superimposed upon the myth. And as for Last Planet's production: I've seen more sparks fly at a Cisco barbecue.
The company doesn't seem to know quite what to do with Maguire's jerky words. Heidi Wolff, who most recently brought great precision and insight to her roles in Last Planet's clever productions of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Howard Brenton's Sore Throats, carries out the stage directions (which amount to a whole lot of histrionics) like an automaton; there's little soul behind her convulsions and screams. Lumbered with the lion's share of the play's tough corporate slang, Erin Gilley and Charlie Goldenhawk Reaves try to convince us that they're in control by bursting into repeated spasms of maniacal laughter. The technique, most popularly associated with vampire movies, is meant to suggest a heightened level of self-awareness and power. But the laughter in Phaedra feels labored, as if the actors don't know what else to do in the moment. It doesn't help matters that Reaves is a dead ringer for Larry Ellison, Oracle's cheesy CEO.
The set and lighting designs strive to convey passionate chaos, a central theme in the Phaedra story. There's plenty of chaos in Alex Lopez's constantly changing disco-hued lights, likewise in the sprawling, compartmentalized set with separate spaces devoted to complex reconstructions of a bathhouse, a bedroom, a conservatory, a kitchen, and what looks like -- stage center -- a boardroom. But there's not much passion. As the actors fling themselves from area to area in a frenzied whirl of costume and color, the overriding feeling is one of confusion, unconvincingly tempered by grinding hips and lascivious looks.
Last Planet is a company I admire for its boldness and intelligence. From their inaugural season in 1999 -- an entire festival devoted to playwright Wallace Shawn -- to their recent productions of Brenton and Fassbinder, director John Wilkins and his cohorts have matched programming daring with theatrical ardor. If any local company has demonstrated an understanding of human desire, it's this one. In fact, I would pay good money to see a Last Planet production of Racine's original tragedy. The controlled music of Racine's poetry would act as the perfect frame for Wilkins' explosive style. As it is, I just don't share the director's enthusiasm for Maguire.
Upon closer inspection, the theater's enduring fascination with the Phaedra myth isn't so far removed from its interest in exploring necrophilia, bigamy, and other nooks and crannies of the darkly erotic. If, like Phaedra, the lengthy canon of plays dealing with alternative sexual relationships succeeds in making us believe in -- maybe even empathize with -- characters who prefer humping anything other than a live, grown-up human being, it's largely due to the skill of playwrights, directors, and actors in conveying their protagonists' all-consuming, chaotic passion. Passion is Phaedra's throbbing engine. Without it, the myth -- whatever form it takes -- is little more than the lukewarm story of a pathetic middle-aged woman's aborted fantasies.